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Fort Concho: A History and a Guide

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In the fall of 1867 the United States Army established a permanent camp on the plateau where the North and Middle Concho rivers join. For centuries, this high open plateau had remained barren except for passing expeditions or Native American hunting parties. The establishment of Fort Concho provided a vital link in the line of frontier defense and led to the development of the town of San Angelo across the North Concho River from the military post.

In more than twenty years of federal service, Fort Concho was home to companies of fifteen regiments in the regular United States Army, including Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's Fourth Cavalry and Col. Benjamin Grierson's Tenth Cavalry of buffalo soldiers. The post provided a focal point for major campaigns against the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches. Patrols from Fort Concho charted vast areas of western Texas and provided a climate for settlement on the Texas frontier. Today Fort Concho stands restored, thanks to numerous preservation efforts, as a memorial to all the peoples who struggled to survive on the plateau where the rivers join.

Fort Concho: A History and a Guide by James T. Matthews has been hailed by Fort Concho director Bob Bluthardt as "the first book on the history of the fort in fifty years." Fort Concho is another title in the Texas State Historical Association's Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series, which publishes short books about important historical sites or events in Texas history.

Number Eighteen: Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series

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1. On the Plateau where the Rivers Join: Building Fort Concho

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1.

ON THE PLATEAU WHERE THE RIVERS JOIN: BUILDING FORT CONCHO

IN THE FALL OF 1867 the United States Army established a permanent camp on the plateau where the North and Middle Concho rivers join. For centuries, this high open plateau had remained barren except for passing expeditions or hunting parties. The Jumano Indians had established a village downstream on the North Concho by the 1530s, and Cabeza de Vaca stayed there on his way west in 1534. Almost a century later, between 1629 and 1632, a mission under the leadership of Franciscans Juan de Salas and Diego Lopez conducted Christian services at the thriving Jumano village. By the 1650s Spanish traders from Santa Fe became frequent visitors at the Concho River settlement. Some collected the conchos, or shells, for which the river was named and harvested them for pearls. Around 1690 the Jumanos abandoned the area entirely in the face of Apache advances onto the South Plains of Texas.1

In the mid 1700s the Apaches also moved on to the south and west as the Concho River country came under the control of Comanches, the fearless horsemen of the plains. The Comanche war trail crossed the Conchos on its way from Big Spring to the Rio Grande. As the flags of Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and finally the United States successively flew over the European settlements of Texas, the Comanches continued to travel freely across the South Plains. Then in 1849, following the war with Mexico, American citizens began to cross West Texas. They came seeking trade routes and trails to the gold fields of California. The United States Army surveyed these routes and proposed that a line of outposts be established along the Comanche frontier to enforce peace through a strong military presence among the tribes. In March 1852 troops manned Camp Joseph E. Johnston, a temporary site on the North Concho River. It was abandoned with the founding of Fort Chadbourne on a tributary of the Colorado River in October 1852. Patrols from Fort Chadbourne scouted south along the Concho River throughout the 1850s. Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee led one of the scouting expeditions in the summer of 1856. In 1858 the short-lived Butterfield Overland Mail route crossed the North Concho and ran west along the Middle Concho on its way to the Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River and then on to California.2

 

2. Mackenzie’s Raiders: Securing the Texas Frontier

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MACKENZIE’S RAIDERS: SECURING THE TEXAS FRONTIER

DURING THE EARLY YEARS at Fort Concho, construction duty proved to be a major focus in the troopers’ daily routine. When not on construction crews or guard duty, the men of Fort Concho regularly scouted for Indians or acted as escorts for supply trains, mail runs, and cattle herds. Companies rotated field assignments at sites including old Fort Chadbourne, Johnson’s Station, and Camp Charlotte, a stockaded outpost at the junction of the Butterfield and San Antonio–El Paso mail routes.25

Despite frequent scouting expeditions, troopers seldom actually encountered the Indian raiding parties that continued to attack stage routes and supply lines. In February 1871 Post Surgeon William Notson noted in his medical history that “some scouting was attempted with the usual negative results.” Such discouraging accounts proved typical of army patrols from the Guadalupe Mountains to the Red River. Yet even as Notson wrote his entry, the Fourth Cavalry, under its new commander, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, had begun to develop a plan of retaliation against Comanche and Kiowa raiders. Following the Kiowa attack on the Warren wagon train in May 1871, the Fourth Cavalry joined in a coordinated campaign with troopers from Fort Griffin and Fort Sill. In July 1871 six troops, led by Company I commander Capt. Napoleon Bonaparte McLaughlin, marched to the Little Wichita River, where they joined the rest of the Fourth Cavalry in pursuit of Indians who had left the Fort Sill reservation. Unfortunately, while serving as a good field exercise and lesson in geography, the expedition met with little success. The wagon train raiders had already returned to the reservation. McLaughlin’s weary men turned back toward Fort Concho in September 1871.26

 

3. Squarely Fought: The District of the Pecos and the Campaign against Victorio

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SQUARELY FOUGHT: THE DISTRICT OF THE PECOS AND THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST VICTORIO

COL. BENJAMIN GRIERSON ARRIVED at Fort Concho with the headquarters of the Tenth Cavalry on April 17, 1875. Grierson, originally a music teacher from Illinois, had earned his reputation as a Union cavalry commander during the Civil War. In 1866 he organized the Tenth Cavalry, one of two black mounted regiments in the Regular Army. In contrast to the Irish and German immigrants of the Fourth Cavalry, the Tenth consisted largely of former slaves from the border states of Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee. To the army, the black troopers were known as Grierson’s Brunets. Their Indian adversaries referred to them with respect as “buffalo soldiers” because their hair resembled that of the sacred buffalo.48

Since 1867 the Tenth Cavalry had been stationed in Kansas and Oklahoma. With the defeat of the Cheyennes and many of the Kiowas and Comanches during the Red River War, their area of operations moved south to the West Texas plains. At Fort Concho the Tenth assumed regular outpost and escort duties. Although the Comanches and Kiowas had been forced onto the reservation, Indian raids on local ranches and stage lines continued to pose a threat to expanding settlement in western Texas. Grierson’s buffalo soldiers patrolled the South Plains and trans–Pecos regions searching for raiding parties. While many of those expeditions were uneventful, one patrol in July 1877 actually proved disastrous for an entire company of troopers.

 

4. Fort Concho Blues: The Soldiers’ Life on Post

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FORT CONCHO BLUES: THE SOLDIERS’ LIFE ON POST

THROUGH ALL THE SCOUTING EXPEDITIONS, explorations, and Indian campaigns, the daily routine of army life continued at Fort Concho. Soldiers woke to the sounds of a “morning gun” and the bugles blowing reveille at sunrise. After breakfast, the garrison assembled to post the guard. Officers inspected the companies and their quarters. Those soldiers not on guard performed various fatigue duties including the cleaning and repair of equipment and buildings, hauling wood and supplies, and care of the animals. The largest meal of the day was served around noon. Soldiers then returned to fatigue and guard duties for several hours followed by military drills and target practice until sunset. At dusk retreat sounded and supper was served. In the summer the day ended around 8:30 P.M. During the winter, with limited daylight, the soldiers’ day ended even earlier.68

At all of the posts along the frontier this general routine was followed. To sustain them in their duties, the troopers received a daily ration that consisted mainly of beef, bread, and coffee. Even at breakfast, beef and bread remained the standard fare. For supper, soldiers ate food warmed over from the large noon meal. When possible, cooks supplemented the unappetizing ration with potatoes, bacon, hominy, bean soup, and even fresh fruits and vegetables. Gardens were cultivated on the post with some success, while officers pooled company funds to provide occasional delicacies. Soldiers returning from hunting trips sometimes brought fresh game, including buffalo, antelope, and turkey.69 Yet the supply of vegetables and items such as butter, honey, or lemons remained scarce.

 

5. Civilizing the Frontier: Chaplains, Surgeons, and Sutlers

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CIVILIZING THE FRONTIER: CHAPLAINS, SURGEONS, AND SUTLERS

ON APRIL 30, 1871, THREE WEEKS after his arrival at Fort Concho, Chaplain Norman Badger ventured across the North Concho River to conduct worship services in the small collection of saloons and shanties that later would become the city of San Angelo. Post Surgeon William Notson noted in his monthly report that it was “probably the first time that the name of the Deity was ever publicly used in reverence in that place.”88 Although not in the front line of battle or even in the post chain of command, the chaplains and others such as surgeons and sutlers who served at Fort Concho struggled to develop an atmosphere of civilization on the edge of the Texas frontier.

Since the army had funding for no more than about thirty post chaplains, they were assigned only to the most remote locations. In 1868 Fort Concho stood on the edge of civilization. Its first chaplain arrived while foundations for many of the post buildings were still being laid. Originally assigned to Fort Chadbourne, Thaddeus McFalls followed the Fourth Cavalry to Fort Concho. The Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania had served as a hospital chaplain during the Civil War, when he contracted a case of typhoid fever from which he never completely recovered. By February 1869 his illness was serious enough for Doctor Notson to place him on extended sick leave and send him back to Washington, D.C., for recovery.89

 

6. The Last Bugle Call: Abandoning Fort Concho

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6.

THE LAST BUGLE CALL: ABANDONING FORT CONCHO

ON JANUARY 27, 1881, A COMPANY of Texas Rangers under Capt. George Baylor rode into the Sierra Diablo and engaged and defeated the remnants of Victorio’s Apache band in the last Indian battle fought in the state of Texas. As the Apaches moved further west into New Mexico and Arizona territories, the army followed. The Tenth Cavalry began its westward trek in 1882 when their headquarters transferred to Fort Davis in the trans–Pecos region. The War Department was not prepared to abandon Fort Concho in 1882. In August of that year the outpost on the Conchos became headquarters for the Sixteenth U.S. Infantry.111

Lt. Col. Alfred L. Hough arrived with the regimental headquarters staff only days after a flood had destroyed the county seat at Benficklin and badly damaged areas of San Angelo. Soldiers of the Sixteenth spent their first week on duty at Fort Concho providing rations, shelter, and medical care for the survivors. Gradually life in town returned to normal, while the Sixteenth Infantry established a daily routine on post. The army’s assistance in combating local disasters such as the flood and several fires brought about a marked improvement in the previously strained relations between Fort Concho and San Angelo.112

 

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